It may come as a big surprise for many in Canada to learn that public universities in several countries belonging to the European Union do not charge tuition fees.
It may also come as a shock to realize that a number of these nations, Germany, for example, even offer free tuition to international students as well.
Here in Canada, tuition fees are a major barrier to post-secondary education for people from low-income families.
In a report last year, Statistics Canada noted that tuition fees for degree programs increased in school year 2017-2018.
For full-time students, tuition for undergraduate programs was, on average, $6,571 per year, an increase of 3.1 percent from the 2016-2017 academic year.
The most costly undergraduate programs are dentistry, with $22,297 in yearly tuition for 2017-2018; medicine, $14,444; law, $13,642; and pharmacy, $10,279.
For graduate programs, the average cost was $6,907, a 1.8 percent increase from the previous year.
Statistics Canada also noted in its report that while postsecondary institutions receive the majority of their revenue from government funding, “tuition fees represent a growing source of revenue for universities and degree-granting colleges”.
In addition to tuition fees, compulsory fees are also increasing. These fees typically cover such items as athletics, student health services, and student associations.
The statistics agency noted that additional compulsory fees for undergraduate students were, on average, $880 in 2017-2018, which represents a 3.8 percent from the preceding year. For graduate students, average additional compulsory fees increased 4.2 percent to $838.
There have been longstanding calls to abolish tuition fees in public universities in Canada and elsewhere.
U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, who sought the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party in 2016, believes that tuition-free education is “not a radical idea”.
“Finland, Norway, Sweden and many other countries around the world also offer free college to all of their citizens,” according to Sanders.
Sanders has also noted that a number of American colleges and universities used to offer free tuition.
As the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) recalled, there was a time when Canada seemed to be moving toward a fully universal system of post-secondary education.
According to the CFS, public funding accounted for over 90 percent of budgets for universities by the early 1970s. Cuts have since eroded this support.
It’s always a question of money, and one may ask how much does it cost to make higher learning tuition free in Canada.
The CFS crunched the numbers: It’s $10.2 billion per year, a big number no doubt. In perspective, it’s less than one percent of Canada’s gross domestic product or GDP. To be exact, it’s 0.6 percent.
The student federation has also noted that tuition fee revenues have tripled over the last 15 years.
Now, there are of course arguments against eliminating tuition fees.
One is that it will simply benefit the rich who have the means to send their kids to universities and colleges.
Following from this argument, it would be better if the government improves the delivery of bursaries for students with low incomes.
The debate is far from settled, but what is clear is that a national conversation about funding for higher education is needed.
The federal NDP has made a clear position on this issue, when members held their national convention in February this year
New Democrats passed a resolution that if elected as the next government, they will work with the provinces toward the elimination of tuition fees.
According to the resolution approved by the NDP, post-secondary education is a requirement for 70 percent of new jobs.
Citing the government’s underfunding of education as reason, the document noted that average student debt upon graduation exceeds $30,000, while total student-loan debt has ballooned to more than $28 billion.
It may be time to look into how Canada, as a nation, views higher learning.
Almost everyone agrees that education is important and beneficial to society. The question is whether or not it is seen principally as a commodity, whose main purpose is to serve as a ticket to a job.
But if education is regarded as something more than just an article of trade, then perhaps there is something that can be said about granting universal access to post-secondary education.
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